Don’t be a Sucker

May 2, 2008

Americans are suckers. There’s no doubt about it — we work harder than any other society in the first world, and we aren’t any better off. We suffer lilliputian vacations, long working hours, and we do it because somewhere in our cultural psyche, we think it’s a good idea.

I’m here to tell you that it’s a terrible idea, and that you’re a sucker for doing it. Money doesn’t matter, your life matters. Your family matters. Your friends matter.

My fellow wage slaves at Acme would grind themselves into the ground for that sweat shop. They worked until the wee hours of the morning to make sure some data entry application was deployed to the Quality Assurance environment before some totally arbitrary management deadline, then they’d come in bright and early after catching a short nap and a shower. For what?

Were they recognized? Rewarded? Promoted? Of course not. The ones who weren’t laid off in droves were given an annual “cost of living increase” that didn’t even match inflation, while their benefits were cut and their 401k lost value month after month because of lackluster corporate governance.

This isn’t an unusual scenario — this is the disease of corporate America, and it seems to be the worst in the tech and banking sectors.

What’s in it for me?

Bah Humbug!

Ask yourself that question before working late. What’s in it for me? Don’t think for a moment that you owe your masters anything more than the 40 hours per week they bargained for. Spend even less time there if you can get away with it. They wouldn’t give anything to you that they weren’t obligated to give, and they will lay you off in a heart beat, make no mistake.

Ask yourself if there’s some learning opportunity to be had. Ask yourself, if you’re an hourly employee, is there some pressing need for you to make that extra money. Did you genuinely screw up in a way that’s going to make your coworkers’ lives difficult?

Normally the answer is that you’re doing it because you feel pressured by your boss to meet his deadline for something, and you have this vague sense that working your ass off for no compensation is The Right Thing™ to do. It’s not. You should pack up at your normal time and go enjoy your life, read a book, work on your music or your painting, and come back in the morning ready to finish up.

Perceived Value


I have a neighbor who has an orange tree, and during the season he had too many for his family to eat. He put dozens of oranges in the front of his house, in a crate, and attached a sign to the crate that said “Free Oranges.” For those of you not keeping track, fresh fruit is very expensive these days, but guess what happened to those free oranges? They rotted. They were picked up by the garbage man when they went moldy.

To explain why such a thing would happen, consider the “wine tasting” study from Caltech and Stanford. In it, participants were asked to rate three varieties of wine. Some of these people were wine amateurs, some connoisseurs. The wine was unmarked except for the price: one was a cheap wine, another very expensive, a third in the middle. Predictably, the more expensive wine was rated more highly across all groups. The punchline is that the wine was identical: the researchers had poured wine from the same bottles into unmarked containers and simply labeled them all with a false price.

The lesson to take here is that people attach value to expense. If you donate your time to your faceless employer, the company will happily calculate your contribution into the bottom line, but will treat you as though your time has no value. They will treat you as though it is their right to have your time.

It is not their right. They negotiated a contract with you, and they will stick to it until you become expendable. You are wise to treat the relationship the same way, or you’ll be taken to the cleaners.


One Response to “Don’t be a Sucker”

  1. […] insane. He’s a nice guy, and he does his job fairly well as far as I can see, but he is a sucker. Like my former colleagues at Acme, Doug works way too hard for nothing in return. He is here for a […]

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